Regarded as both the friendly and windy city, depending on who you’re talking to and when, Port Elizabeth is deemed a great place in which to holiday, its people genial, its beaches enviable and its weather gorgeous almost the whole year round – winter beach moments can easily surpass scorching summer sizzlers.
And despite the jibes about copious amounts of ‘industrial scenery’, the warm waters of the Indian Ocean are enough of an attraction for the average Capetonian to turn a blind eye to the factory-scattered skyline.
There is a list a mile long of great things to do when in Port Elizabeth, but here are 10 we think you’ll enjoy, some of them indisputable, others a little less obvious …
Visit the Addo Elephant National Park
You cannot visit Port Elizabeth without a drive out to the Addo Elephant Park to see the elephants. The trip will take you only an hour and the visit will transport you straight into the heart of the bush, with the promise of seeing elephants.
The main watering hole is so strategically placed that you are almost guaranteed of a bird’s eye view for watching groups of the almost 500 elephants that call Addo home. Seeing them socialise, drink, eat and walk in their strong, slow fashion is a treat for anyone.
If you want to get there faster, the southern gate is only 30 minutes from the city, but the main gate has a great watering hole, so it is worth the effort. Addo is the third largest national park in the country and claims to be the first Big 7 game reserve in the world (it includes the Southern Right whale and Great White shark in this list as the park extends to the coast with its marine coastal reserve).
Visit the Blue Flag beaches
South Africa boasts a total of twenty seven beaches awarded with international Blue Flag status, which means that they’re clean, environmentally sound and safe. Seven of these lie in the Eastern Cape, and two of them in Port Elizabeth.
Humewood beach in particular is a firm favourite with visitors, even if it lies on the outskirts of the main city area. It is the oldest Blue Flag beach in South Africa, the old slipway a very safe space in which to learn to snorkel or scuba dive – there are fantastic reefs just 100 metres beyond the end pillars, where in the 1930s boats were repaired by sailing inbetween the pillars, after which they were pulled up the slipway with a steam pulley.
The other Blue Flag beach in Port Elizabeth is Wells Estate, a little north of the city.
Visit the rugged coastline – Maitland sand dune
This is a great one for families. The giant sand dune at Maitlands gets everyone energised with its steep trek up to the ridge of the dune, but the stupendous views from up here are worth it – promise. And then there is the way down again – body boards, pieces of cardboard, and of course, sandboards – anything will do, really, for the joy of sliding your way to the bottom. Exhilaration at its best.
Walk the Donkin Heritage Trail
Any local visitor’s manual to Port Elizabeth will describe the 5 kilometre Donkin Heritage trail that links 47 historical sites of the 1820 settlers.
The popular trail is a self-walk route around the city centre and market square, but part of the trail is through the original Donkin houses and the Donkin Reserve (the houses run along the side of the reserve). But what the tourist brochures won’t tell you is that what has to be the biggest South African flag flies in the reserve. It stands 12 metres high and the flag is, well, big – you must be able to see it for miles around.
Visit the Red Location Museum
This is another historical must when in Port Elizabeth. The hall of columns alone, which is also the main lobby of the museum, is worth the visit. Fifteen columns, each dedicated to a local hero of the struggle, change every year via a nomination process by the local community. The solid, beautifully hewn hall with its granite columns and steps, one side a window to the sky is quite breathtaking.
The Nelson Mandela Room contains his biography in both documentation and photos, including letters he wrote whilst on Robben Island. Not all of it is easy on the eye or the psyche. The hanging of Vuyislie Mini, who was hanged in 1964, is a larger-than-life photo of him infront of which swing three nooses (he was hanged along with two others), and a series of boxes that stand covering ceiling to floor, hold the names of those killed by the government for their part in anti-apartheid activities.
It’s a sobering, but necessary visit. The museum is in Red Location, today a mix of the old tin shacks where black residents of Strangers Location and Coopers Kloof were moved in 1903.
Grab a meal in Parliament Street
There’s a real vibe to Parliament Street, the fairly recently upgraded part of Uptown Port Elizabeth. With a series of coffee shops, night clubs and the odd restaurant, there is a sense that this is where it’s happening in the night scene in PE.
During the day its the playground of attorneys, architects, hairdressers, internet cafés and the odd high tech printer. At night this part of town has plenty of activity and the party goes on most of the night through, well, as much as PE does partying.
Drive to Schoenmakerskop, hike the Sacramento Trail
The Sacramento Trail is a moderately difficult 8 kilometre hike between the little coastal village of Schoenmakerskop and Sardinia Bay. You can choose to either do this as a one-way, in which case it is 4 kilometres, or as a circular route.
It’s a beautiful hike taking in the Sardinia Bay Nature Reserve with landscapes that include sea and land, but you’ll need a fair amount of nimbleness to manage the rocks at Sardinia Bay. You should pass through the Maitlands River mouth – a firm favourite amongst fishermen.
Visit historical Bethelsdorp
Bethelsdorp is quite simply charming, and beautiful. At least one row of historic houses awaits you in the fashion of long, white Almshouses, built by the London Missionary Society way back in the early 1800s. The village predates both Uitenhage, another historical village worth a visit, and PE, and from 2008 the main square and the old cemetery have been in the process of being upgraded and restored.
There is also a circular trail one can do, starting in the historic village. It follows the Little Zwartkops River through Van der Kemp’s Kloof and then returns you to the commonage. It is 8 kilometres in its entirety but can be shortened to half that, but walk in a group and take a hat with you.
Take a cruise to St Croix Island
Bartolomeu Dias landed on St Croix Island, one of three islands in Algoa Bay just off Hougham Park, in 1488. It rests 12 nautical miles east of the city and is the main breeding ground of the penguin and other sea birds. It is a reserve and peoople are not allowed on the island. However, you can take a cruise around these islands and back to the harbour – roughly a three-hour long sail around the bay.
Cycle the Baakens River Mountain Bike Trail
Admittedly you need to be a keen cyclist for this trail, but it is one of two that Port Elizabeth boasts that are really worth doing. The other is the Zwartkops Mountain bike trail. The Baakens River trail starts at Dodd’s Farm, at the bottom of 9th Avenue in Walmer and runs along a green belt through the city, which makes it that much more worthwhile given the historic moments it manages to include.
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